Clause for thought

May 13, 2005

When students submit essays filled with grammatical howlers, don’t just throw up your hands and sigh. Instead, show them a few simple rules and you’ll equip them with one of life’s essential skills, say John Peck and Martin Coyle

Most students today arrive at university with large suitcases but little knowledge of formal grammar. In this respect, they are exactly the same as students who started at university 20, 40 or 60 years ago. There are, of course, many who do know how to write literate, well-honed essays, but there are equally as many who are baffled by the challenge of producing conventionally correct work.

Inevitably, there are those who would have us believe that this is because standards have declined disastrously. Lynne Truss, in Eats, Shoots and Leaves , recalls a golden age when “punctuation was routinely taught in British schools”. Well, all of us were drilled in physical education at school, but most of us have surprisingly few Olympic medals to show for all the energy that went into instructing us. It is simply not acceptable to blame schoolteachers - or fashions in teaching - if most young people find writing a problem.

The fact is that “how to write” has always been taught in schools. The problem is that schoolchildren, like the rest of us, do not bother to listen when they are not interested. Being told to take care over every comma is the equivalent of being told always to practise safe sex; it is the idea of sex that captures the imagination, not the precautions. Every schoolchild is vaguely aware that a set of grammatical rules exists, but why bother if you can text or email without them?

The problem is compounded by the fact that we - both schoolteachers and university lecturers - are so good at our jobs. Our responsibility is to enthuse our classes, which means sharing with them the delight we take in our subjects. This has one unforeseen consequence when students start at university: even in a subject such as English, the quality of a student’s writing can regress in the first year. Quite simply, the student is dazzled by the intellectual content of a university course and starts to think that only these new ideas matter, not the boring stuff such as writing mechanically correct English. It is also the case that students at university, especially if they are committed and ambitious, are absorbing huge amounts of complex information and operating at the limits, in essay work, of what they can articulate.

It is at this point that the English of even the most gifted students is likely to show signs of strain. We see the evidence of this most clearly in the made-up words students coin when they are desperate to make a point. It is hard for them to grasp that simple and correct English provides the lifeline that will enable them to take control of complex ideas.

What is most surprising, however, is just how competent the writing of most students is most of the time. We might notice the five damning mistakes in a paragraph; but we fail to appreciate the 95 correct choices that the student is likely to have made in the same paragraph. Obviously, however, we should be producing graduates who can go into careers without the danger of embarrassing their employers every time they commit words to paper. The real question is how to improve things. We can start by making it clear to students what we expect. Every department these days has a clear policy on plagiarism and on late work. It has policies, that is, on negative skills. Does every department have an equally clear policy on the positives of written work? Are students issued with a handbook that includes examples of good practice? Are essays returned to students with all the mistakes in English annotated? There is no point in saying, “The English teachers at school should have done their job, I’m only here to do my job.” There is a sense in which every university lecturer has to accept that in a system based on written assessment, he or she is also a teacher of English.

The stumbling block here, of course, is time. University lecturers are hard-pressed. How, realistically, can we help? Well, we can do what we always do: send the students off to read a book. There are plenty of how-to-write guides. Read one and it will not make much of an impression, but read three (and they do tend to be quite short) and the message will start to get through. Perhaps most important, however, students need to be shown how few and how simple the conventions are that drive sentences and drive an essay. Writing well might be a difficult problem, but the answer is in a small number of easily understood rules.

There are, in fact, remarkably few things students need to know to be able to write well. They need to be able to identify the basic pattern of all sentences (the structure of subject/verb/complement); they need to know how to employ commas; they need to be able to recognise a comma splice and a fragment, and know how to remedy them; and they need to know the importance of reading a sentence out loud to check that the words say what they want them to, and that they say this in a manner that sounds correct and clear.

Grammar is not rocket science. The rules about apostrophes, colons and semicolons and, indeed, everything except spelling, are few in number and just as simple. Moreover, the overall structure of an essay can be based on equally simple and clear rules: logic, clarity and order. There is seldom any need for specialist advice on essay writing; what needs fixing is so basic that anyone with a sense of the rules can effect their own repairs. What we can do as lecturers is grasp for ourselves an understanding of just how simple these rules of writing are; and this, in turn, should allow us to see just how easy it is to pass on the essential skills of good English to our students. Our job, after all, is to make sure that they leave university with more than they arrived with.

John Peck and Martin Coyle are the authors of The Student’s Guide to Writing (Palgrave) and Write it Right (Palgrave), due to be published later this year. Both teach in the English department at Cardiff University. 

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